This is the first part of a two part series on race and class. In recent weeks, the discussion of affirmative action has been commingled with assertions that class should be the determining factor for those who seek assistance. I would argue that this app roach is flawed in two distinct ways; first, the target, people of color, is misplaced, and second, a class-based approach ignores racial bias as having a significant impact upon the progress of people of color. I start with the misguided salvos against t he wrong enemy.
Often times the discussion of race-based programs designed to assist those who have been historically disadvantaged is contrasted with the idea of class preferences. The argument stems from the notion that most people of color are economically disadvantag ed - the U.S. Census Bureau reports that approximately 30 percent of African American families live below the poverty line, compared to only about 10 percent of whites. Accordingly, need-based programs will, by default, assist many people of color. Oppone nts of race-based programs contend that well-to-do people of color take advantage of these programs while needy white families are left to fend for themselves.
A former Yale student mentioned to me that Chelsea Clinton, the president's daughter, was considering Yale. As sort of a knee-jerk reaction, I asked if Chelsea had the grades. The woman turned to me, sort of surprised at my naivet and promptly put it int o perspective by saying, "She doesn't have to!" Sounds like Chelsea may take advantage of an "affirmative action" program.
Moreover, it was reported recently that Ward Connerly, architect of the effort to dismantle California's affirmative action policies, along with other University of California regents, were accused of trying to influence university admissions committees t o admit family members and friends. Furthermore, we have all heard of the "old-boys network," an insider's gateway to jobs, promotions, raises and perks of the trade. Both sound like "affirmative action" to me.
Yet, neither one of these practices are targeted as running counter to what people perceive as fair and egalitarian. On the contrary, these practices are distinguished as exclusive; so appreciated for their upper-class status that many strive to be includ ed, so they can be thought of as "arrived" in the most coveted circles. Besides, these practices are not readily identifiable federal programs, easily marked as preferential. They cannot be condemned by opponents, who attempt to dismantle their provisions line by line, seeking to render the documents as obsolete and unnecessary.
Discussions of economic class in this country have become increasingly common in recent years largely because the gap between the lower-class and upper-class has been steadily increasing. Those in the middle have found that the fight from the lower-middle class to the upper-middle class is fraught with obstacles, mainly because the amount of participants has grown and has become increasingly colorful. People of color, fresh from the push of a civil rights era that has only recently turned thirty years old , have joined the charge for the American dream.
Nevertheless, while the American dream moves farther away, competition has grown fierce and blood thirsty. Warriors call for the blood of those who appear to have an advantage via federal entitlements, services and benefits. Affirmative action programs, w elfare, health care and immigration are easy strategic targets for attack.
The enemy is the easy target. And, through no fault of their own, the enemy is often people of color. The easy targets are slow moving African Americans and Hispanics, weighed down in the mire of bias and bigotry, subject to unwanted scrutiny from those w ho believe they are to be left behind. Programs designed to assist people of color who, historically and lately, have been discriminated against solely because of the color of their skin and not because of their economic status, are attacked as though the y are structured to exclude others. Reverse discrimination and preferential treatment are the ordinance used to destroy these programs and harm the users.
Those who wage war on affirmative action, welfare and immigration programs bring with them the weapon of class, but engage the wrong enemy. People of color are not the enemy. Should they take a minute to step back, they will see that they and people of co lor are fighting for the same goals - equality, opportunity and chance to obtain the American dream.
David Benton is a third-year law student, member of the ASUA President's cabinet and Arizona Student Association board member. His column, 'Another Perspective,' appears Tuesdays.